The blood-sucking undead, the Vampire, is the most popular creature of the night. The mythology behind vampirism is rooted in folklore traditions and superstition going back thousands of years. In this blog post, we’re going to explore the mythohistorical origins of the vampire and its impact on our culture today.
Have you ever been to Transylvania? I haven’t.
It’s a beautiful region in Romania, surrounded by the Carpathian mountain range and Apuseni mountains. It has a rich history and a unique culture.
But of course, most of us know it because of… vampires! Indeed, the Bran castle located near Brasov is Dracula’s castle
It’s fascinating how a folklore tale can have such an influence on our perception, right?
See, the myth of the Vampire is one of the most persistent, old “superstitions” that still exists, in a different form, today. Why?
I decided to begin this series of blog posts, Creatures of the Night, to shed light on the true nature of the monsters and supernatural beings that have inspired fear and terror in our hearts.
So, let’s dig in!
Vampires: From Myths and Legends to History
Vampires have existed in all civilizations and cultures around the world, one way or another.
Their most common characteristic is the fact they feed off the vital energy of humans; blood.
(Keep this in mind as we dive deeper into the psychological implications later on…)
The myth of the blood-sucking creature emerged from our ignorance of how a corpse decomposes. There’s some evidence regarding a pathological condition called porphyria that might have spawned rumors about a “vampire epidemic”.
Instances of premature burial could also be the culprit.
In Slavic mythology, you’ll notice that the original appearance of the vampir was what we’d consider a zombie today; flesh rotting, dark, and bloated. That meshes well with the theory that they were undead, cursed by a witch. Once the Church found its footing in the innate fears of the common folk, sin and the unholy replaced other folklore superstitions.
How to Kill a Vampire?
We used to believe that if an animal jumped over a corpse, if you were a witch or if you’ve committed suicide, there was a possibility that you’d return back from the dead!
So, we began placing bodies upside down, staking them, and placing valuable items so the “demons” were satisfied.
Apotropaics like garlic, hawthorns, and the cross, later on, were also employed to scare off the predator!
There was also the belief that vampires could only enter your house if you invited them in.
You might think that these things are silly. And they might be, yet they’re rooted in a tradition of the ancient Greeks.
Greeks believed that souls went to a liminal space, the Underworld. But to arrive, they had to cross the River Styx with the help of Charon, the boatman. And he needed an “obol”, coin, as payment.
If you didn’t have the coins, you’d become an undead.
The Historical Context of the Vampire
Most of what we think about vampires today stem from medieval resources and Slavic mythology.
Having said that, many creatures are resembling them in many different civilizations. Demons, evil spirits, witches, monster animals like the Chupacabra could all be regarded as precursors to our modern interpretation of the blood-sucking vampires.
Disease epidemics in Europe, combined with the witch trials happening back then, accentuated and mystified the myth of the Vampire.
Another possibility is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. If you’ve read our (free) Lucid Dreaming book, you’ll already know why and how hypnagogic hallucinations can take hold of you during sleep!
But let’s take a moment to rationalize these beliefs. I insist that the mystery of death perplexed people in the past, even today if we’re being honest, to the point that they had to “personify” it.
From Nyx and Hypnos to these undead creatures, we were always attempting to find a cause and effect for the events we couldn’t understand.
Epidemics, livestock diseases, murders, etc need a logical explanation behind them. Who’s to blame?
A predator, an undead, with supernatural abilities perhaps…
What’s interesting is that the mythology of the Vampire persists today but it has taken a different, more sophisticated, intangible form.
Instead of sucking off your blood, they suck off your energy! They’re psychic vampires that drain you off of your positive emotions.
Vampires have become an abstract archetype, confessing how persistent these patterns are in our psyche. We just need an outlet to express and integrate them!
(Maybe with scary movies or celebrations like Halloween?)
A vampire, in the modern sense, which we’ll talk about in a minute, is an apex predator. He wears the veil of Christian superstitions regarding the devil. He can communicate with animals, transform into a bat, and he has superhuman strength… and yet, the sun, light, destroys him.
That which uncovers what’s hidden, our true nature.
In a Nietzschean sense, the Vampire is the ubermensch, the superior man that rose above slave morality.
Lastly, if you want a deeper dive into the psychological significance of the vampire, read this.
Dracula: A Modern Interpretation
Even though the myth of the vampire is ancient it wasn’t until recently that our modern perception of this dark creature was solidified.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula became a cultural phenomenon that inspired an archetypal persona rooted in the ancient myth of vampires.
The epistolary novel concerns an encounter with a noble Prince from Transylvania. It is a subversive love story playing on the themes and narratives of the “Wild Man“.
Yet there are many true historical elements regarding the antagonist of Stoker’s masterpiece.
Vlad the Impaler
It appears that the author wasn’t aware of the life of Vlad Tepes Dracula. But he had collected bits and pieces about the history of Wallachia and the folklore tales of Transylvania that created a mosaic that painted the Romanian belligerent.
A twist of fate, a very interesting coincidence (?) led him to make a connection between vampirism and the bloodthirsty – an accurate adjective – warlord.
Vlad Dracula was the voivode of Wallachia and he’s considered a national hero in the region today.
He eventually became the ruler of this small kingdom, resisting the Ottoman empire, even attempting to increase his territory against the gigantic enemy.
He was imprisoned, defected, and punished during his lifetime. Yet, his sheer strategic mastery and tactical ability allowed him to maintain independence in a turbulent region.
But what lent him his posthumous fame was the brutal punishments and violent outbursts. Rumors began during his lifetime and were perpetuated by stories written by his enemies, eventually reaching Germany and the rest of Europe.
What’s interesting here is that, usually, rumors are exaggerated real events. Yet, in the case of Dracula, they’re spot on.
His nickname, the Impaler, seems to be accurate since he often staked his victims as a message to his enemies.
Scholars and diplomats suggest that the Ruler of Wallachia indeed committed war crimes and genocide by modern standards.
Vampires in the 21st century
Through many iterations of his biography, we arrive at the late Victorian era in the 19th century where a chthonic, yet elegant Prince of darkness emerges from this syncretic combination of vampire’s mythology and real history.
From zombie-like undead that feasted on animals and humans, vampires became gentlemen and scholars able to seduce people employing their charisma and ancient knowledge gifted by their immortality.
And we see that this trope continues to this day.
The mythology of the vampire remains a powerful medium to tell important stories about our deepest psychological fears.
Vampires as a Literary Medium
Plenty of movies, books, and games revolved around this affliction. The vampire has used his fangs and wild allure to penetrate our culture.
It began with books like Stokers. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (highly recommend), Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice are its intellectual descendants.
The Nosferatu, a silent black and white movie, was the first adaptation of Stoker’s novel, followed by Coppola’s.
A couple of months ago, Midnight Mass went live on Netflix creating another uptick in interest.
Having said that, we’ve moved further away from the dark, chthonic themes we can find in these movies and towards a more refined, goth aesthetic.
The Twilight, Vampire Diaries, etc use the myth of the vampire as a background setting to tell otherwise mundane, human stories.
It’s worth highlighting how a culture transforms these ancient legends and myths to suit the current zeitgeist.
The Vampire Hunter
I left out how in every vampire-related story, there’s always the vampire hunter.
The person seeking to “kill” the creature of the night.
Of course, vampires are a piece of fiction. No one believes they exist in any capacity. Because superstition is a superimposed belief explaining that which we can’t understand or see.
But today, we understand that the “blood-sucking undead” is an allegory for political oppression, disease, even prejudice.
And the vampire hunter is the liberator. On a personal level, he’s the conscious self trying to integrate the Jungian Shadow.
P.S. – Make sure to subscribe here so you don’t miss out on the next instalment of Creatures of the Night… The Werewolf!
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.